Some time during my father’s last summer, I sat with him in his garden. It was late afternoon: the sun, bright and warm but no longer overhead, was hitting the tree-tops at an angle which etched every leaf sharply against its own shadow. You felt if you gazed clear-mindedly you could see and even remember every one of the thousands of leaves visible. I asked him how old the trees were — the copper beech, the oak across the road, the tall fir near my sister’s old bedroom which we always feared would topple in the wrong big wind and smash into the house.
“Two to three hundred years,” he said. They predate the house, and likely most of the houses nearby. The village itself is there in the Domesday Book — but these trees were around before any element any of us would recognise of human presence in this neighbourhood.
As a professional botanist, my dad loved trees. On the whole I paid them no attention. I don’t hate them, but while he was alive I always deferred to his expertise. I’d never know as much as he did, he’d be there when I needed to ask — so I ended up not bothering to learn what was which, or to look at them much.
I started looking and thinking when my mum became ill, and I began the repeated drives to and from the hospital, four or five winding miles from my parents’ house, some back and forth twice a day, this changed. To keep my mind occupied, I was varying the route, finding a different curly trefoil knot or spaghetti tangle to link the same start and endpoints — and starting, especially on sunny days, to think how one way and another I’d been on these little lanes all my life (the hospital is a short walk from my primary school, for example). And to think about what was changing and what stayed the same.
Here’s what stays the same most watchfully: trees.
On 19 December 2015, at the ICA, 40 years after its release, I finally watched Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. I’m not a Kubrick fan. I can appreciate the precision of his visual sense — strongly tied into his control freakery — but I find his coldness a chore, the inconsistency of his approach to his actors an irritation, his valorisation as a ‘cinema of ideas’ an idiocy. I’ve made this known from time to time — and people more or less in agreement would alway ask, “Have you seen Barry Lyndon?” Barry Lyndon is Kubrick for people who really don’t otherwise like Kubrick.
Well, I liked it: it’s long but it doesn’t feel it, and I’d watch it again. It’s also — or so I found — hugely sad, unlike any of his other films. And (rather than belatedly review it in full), I’m going to look at why and how this is so, because Kubrick doesn’t deploy any of the ordinary emotion-grubbing tricks.
It’s the tale of an ordinary — if handsome — young Irishman, who loses his first love and leaves home, ending up after mishap serving in a succession of European armies during the Seven Years’ War (1754-63). After this he becomes a spy, a cheating quasi-aristocratic gambler’s sidekick, and in fairly short order the husband of a hugely rich English noblewoman. He has a son with her, fools around, loses the son, and finally — estranged from his distraught wife’s family — loses everything else, and vanishes haplessly from his own story back into Europe. Even his own name isn’t quite his any longer: the name of the film is the one he adopts as a husband, meaning that the movie title memorialises him only in a role that he’s now quite stripped of.
Except perhaps as perverse cameos, few characters are likeable. There’s none you’ll admire and you identify with no one: at some point, everyone is spiteful or greedy, disloyal or self-involved, flawed or unpleasantly foolish. Those who come off best are plainly wrong ’uns from the outset: the highwayman who first robs young Redmond Barry, the amusingly decadent gambler-diplomat Barry spies on and works for (a superb Patrick Magee under a mask of white panstick). Barry himself is pretty much an entitled adolescent dick from the outset, albeit one provided, by Ryan O’Neal, with one “of the most sublimely *perplexed* faces in film,” as fellow Kubrick non-fan Ian Penman described it on twitter — a consequence perhaps as much (as Penman sardonically suggests) of being put through the usual endless Kubrickian repeat takes as of any smart actorly insight into the project.
But this perplexity is certainly an element in the film’s emotional charge: if we don’t exactly sympathise with Barry aka Lyndon, often because we’re allowed to see some time before he does what’s coming, we still feel its sting. At every turn the tale is spoilered by the narrator, Michael Hordern: we are never not told how any given decision will fall out. As a result, there’s a curious, rigorously measured rhythm to the unfolding of the narrative (a “distracted” rhythm, Penman calls it); it somehow suggests that the ultimate outcome is as unavoidable from the start as any of the interim successes or debacles; that the joys could no more be sidestepped than the catastrophes; that destiny is a steel trap.
And it’s framed — in scenes peopled and unpeopled — in a style that’s often called “painterly”, partly because it exactly deliberately recalls paintings of this date (and several others). This little youtube essay names Constable, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Reynolds, Stubbs, Watteau and Zoffany or Zoffani (more a point-and-compare series than a scholarly analysis, the youtube casually features his name spelled both ways), as well Fuseli spelled the German way, for a version of his The Nightmare. This one adds Canaletto, Chardin, Fragonard, Friedrich, Goya, La Tour, Ruisdael and (inevitably) Vermeer. It also features some useful talking heads knowledgeably discussing the cameras Kubrick chose, and why — with a pretty telling gap between this modern technical knowledge and the vague handwaving that the “painterliness” gets, again a point-and-compare series with clips of the soundtrack music doing most of the work.
Caveat: these were the first two youtube I found on this topic, so it’s hardly a fair critique of the entire territory on my part. But I think there is a point worth making here: beyond the reference spotting itself, and the acknowledgment that Kubrick was helping himself to images from these paintings, there seems to be no very urgent need to ask HOW he’s using WHICH paintings, and WHY. Nor am I going to attempt anything like a full answer myself here. The sheer range of names and styles cited above (from Vermeer born 1632 to Friedrich died 1840) pulls sharply against the claim that by doing this, mimicking or paying hommage to certain specific paintings, Kubrick was aiming for anything like exactness of invoked period — not all these painters saw the world in the same way, and England and Ireland alone changed enormously in this 200+ year period, socially and visually.
Two aspects of Kubrick’s images I will draw attention to. The first is that most of the landscapes — at least as they usually seem to be reproduced on the internet — have a less darkling sense of weather than captured on Kubrick’s cameras. Yes, there are sunburst sunsets as backdrops in Kubrick; yes, there are distant storms visible in Gainsborough. What I’m talking about, I think, is source of light. As with the candle-lit interiors, actually, which — caught on camera — soften and diffuse everything. Something similar happens to Kubrick’s day, similar but, switched about. The light comes from the sky, but all of the sky — the sun is behind clouds, and not available for hire the way it is in much of 18th century landscape painting. His (very) longshots, without and without tiny people in the mid-ground trysting or dueling or carriage-bound somewhere, often have more than just a feel of everyday overcast British meteorological flatness. We’re not talking full-on lowering pile-up of Gothic storm-clouds: this isn’t Romanticism or the pathetic fallacy. Quite the opposite: the weather absolutely doesn’t express or the embody the tragedies or the turmoil enacting under its all-seeing eye; it’s basically indifferent to it.
Landscape itself — the unfettered visual enjoyment and legal mastery of it — was increasingly in the 18th century a privilege of the landed: not only did they run huge estates (this wasn’t new) but technologies abounded to associate these sweeps of view with this status. The hired design genius of gardeners like Capability Brown, who shifted the sightlines so that the vista of a grand garden somehow now included the fields beyond it, and the hills behind, and the heaven above. And the commissioned focus of painters like Gainsborough or Reynolds, who placed the great faces in the context of their great holdings. Kubrick may indeed derive his initial inspiration from their portraitists, and his locations from places this generation of gardeners fashioned, but where these artists and makers conjured a continuity between patron and subject and land, this has vanished from Kubrick’s seemingly similar landscapes. The very fact that they’ve lasted as they have, on canvas and in fact, embodies a kind of pitiless disinterest.
The second aspect is the fact that he often seems — at heightened moments in the story — to favour scenes containing uninvolved onlookers, people stood or sat around, not really reacting, who aren’t in this story. We never get to know them, to know their role, if any, in the unfolding tale. And again, it’s a depiction and a record of ostensible disinterest: of an audience momentarily diverted, if that, by the entire history we’re watching. Who will at any moment return to their own lives and more or less forget all they’ve (distractedly, to use Penman’s word) witnessed.
And then of course there’s the trees, and the reason I began this essay the way I did. Some of the technical story of the paintings Kubrick references is the story of different approaches to portraying trees down the decades — and clouds too, I guess, and beneath this, the story of different reasons for wanting to. But what hit me, hard, as I watched, was the fact that some of the trees in his scenes have been there, entirely distinterested, since Thackeray began the novel the film is based on; since Capability Brown began laying out the grounds at Petworth; even, here and there, since before Vermeer’s birth nearly 400 years ago. Watchful, I called them above, helping myself to a cheeky smidgeon of Gothic anthropomorphism — but if they’re guardians of anything, it’s the world emptied of anthropos, of us. And that fact, more than anything, was the vector of the sadness of this film for me — at once deeply personal, and anything but.
“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”